If, as looks likely, Mrs May loses heavily in the Commons tomorrow, it will be because of her obstinacy, not her resilience Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast
Government defeat over withdrawal agreement will make a second referendum all but inevitable, argues Rick Wilford
The late US President Lyndon Johnson once observed that the first rule of politics is that its practitioners need to be able to count; for Theresa May this rule has been hard learnt and she now stands poised to count the cost of her stubbornness.
Tomorrow MPs will at last have the opportunity to have their meaningful vote on the PM’s proposed Brexit deal (postponed by a month) and, while estimates vary, it seems certain that she will suffer a clear if not resounding defeat. And let us not forget that the opportunity to vote was itself only won through recourse to the courts and support from many of her backbenchers, who allied with MPs on the Opposition benches.
Although she has embarked on an eleventh hour — or should that be ‘one minute to midnight’ — charm offensive to persuade MPs from across the Commons to endorse her deal, the best she can wish for is to try and reduce the scale of opposition to less than three figures. A vain hope, I suspect. Furthermore, in the face of defeat she will have to come to the Commons within three working days (next Monday) to table a motion identifying her next move; in effect, Plan B.
With Parliament already deeply divided over the withdrawal agreement, currently there is no majority in the Commons for any of the mooted alternatives, most evidently that of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. No doubt she will, in the wake of defeat, trail off to Brussels in Oliver Twist mode seeking to extract a bit more from the EU, primarily a written legal guarantee that the backstop, if triggered, will apply only for a finite period. That, I’m afraid, is as likely as Monty Python’s parrot springing back to its perch. What then are her options?
In surveying them one has to bear in mind Mrs May’s style of premiership. Flexible is not a word that springs to mind when assessing her modus operandi.
Her approach to the Brexit negotiations has been to wall-in the process to a small circle of advisers in No 10, themselves constrained by her early statement of red lines: out of the customs union and the single market, ending freedom of movement and reclaiming sovereignty by abandoning the European Court of Justice.
In the face of the most momentous decision confronting the nation, she created a straitjacket of Leave-inspired constraints that has limited the scope for inventiveness among UK negotiators.
So, let us not waste time on sympathising with the PM’s predicament. She is very much the author of her own deserved misfortune. The Brexit process has been hamstrung from the first thanks to Mrs May’s obduracy rather than, as her apolto ogists have it, her resilience. Belated efforts to persuade MPs of the sweet reasonableness of her ‘deal’ does not chime with her preferred style of governing, which has included seeking to keep Parliament at arm’slength throughout.
That approach has clearly foundered as MPs bite back, enabled by a Speaker John Bercow, who is intrinsically disposed to facilitate the voices, opinions and, crucially, votes of backbenchers. And, lest we forget, underpinning the Brexiteers’ mantra of “taking back control” lay a cornerstone of the UK’s constitution: parliamentary sovereignty.
Neither the Speaker nor her backbenchers can be faulted for exploiting that indispensable element of our constitutional architecture. So what can she do in the wake of likely defeat? As far as the EU is concerned, negotiations over the withdrawal agreement are over and there will be no substantive change to its terms. At best, if it is feeling charitable (and why would it?), the most she can hope to extract from the EU is some sort of letter of comfort on the backstop, but, crucially, one that has no legal force. That won’t wash with a majority of MPs, whether Leavers or Remainers.
Throughout, she has insisted that the UK will leave the EU on March 29. However, if confronted with a brick wall in Brussels re the withdrawal agreement she may be forced
❝ Her straitjacket of constraints limited the scope for inventiveness among UK negotiators
seek an extension of Article 50, thereby putting back the date of departure unless and until some sort of consensus can be wrought at Westminster. But, of course, whether the EU would agree to an extension is by no means guaranteed, nor is the prospect of an inter-party consensus on an alternative.
Indeed, it is, I think, alien to her political instincts to reach out to her opponents across the Commons (and those sitting behind her) in order to try to forge a consensus on this utterly existential matter; but if she survives tomorrow’s likely defeat, she will have to.
There are thinkable alternatives to the withdrawal agreement, abbreviated as the Norway+ option or Canada++, but as yet neither is capable of securing a majority in Parliament, while the no-deal exit appeals to just a few dozen, mainly Tory MPs.
What is left? In the shortrun, a general election or another referendum — each is problematic and riven with uncertainty.
Jeremy Corbyn’s preference is a general election, the first step towards which is the tabling of a motion of no confidence in the Government following tomorrow’s vote, though not necessarily immediately.
To succeed he needs the support of two-thirds of MPs: 416 (excluding Sinn Fein’s abstentionist MPs plus the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers), which is extremely unlikely given that he would need a sizeable chunk of Conservative MPs to vote with him.
Mrs May could, of course, take the matter into her own hands, as she did in April 2017, and call an early election.
Nothing is impossible in these extraordinary times but, given the state of the polls, it seems rash if not foolhardy for a minority Government characterised by a divided Cabinet and party to opt for this probably suicidal path.
Mr Corbyn’s first choice looks doomed, which leaves us with another referendum — and there are arguments in its favour. We now have a much fuller understanding of the benefits and costs of Brexit than we did in June 2016, such that the electorate can make a more reasoned and informed judgment about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
But what would be the question or questions on the ballot paper? May’s deal versus Remain? Remain versus both May’s deal and Leave on World Trade Organisation terms (no-deal)? And what would the franchise be: those aged over 18 or 16 years (as was the case at the Scottish Independence referendum)?
If Parliament proves incapable of extricating us from this mess then a referendum, with all its attendant risks and uncertainties, seems unavoidable.
❝ If Parliament cannot extricate us from this mess then a referendum ... seems unavoidable
Prime Minister Theresa May, and (below) Labourleader Jeremy Corbyn